Thursday, 10 October 2013

THEATRE REVIEW: Bunny's Vendetta

Derry-Londonderry's Glassworks hosts a powerful, poetic story of punishing passion

If asked to sum up Darren Murphy's Bunny's Vendetta in one word, I'd say that it's a mess. But it's a glorious mess. Murphy, director Caitriona McLaughlin and a gifted cast of actors and musicians have concocted a tale of music, murder and mystifying mirth right under an old church roof, a grand, garbled gospel of shocking surprise and strange satisfaction.

Set in 1950s Soho, and adapted loosely from George Farquhar's "Adventures Of Covent Garden", Bunny's Vendetta is abound with analogies and symbolism before it has even begun. For the wooden boards that adorn the back of the Glassworks suggest far more than a record producer's office wall. We are in a church, after all, and you sense that if the boards could be organ pipes, they would be. Maybe the producer is unhappy that his latest protege's own pipes have turned to wood, and it will take a recording session to spark him into life again. Or perhaps the producer is just being driven up the wall.

He's not alone. The play opens and closes with the sound of "John The Revelator", a clear reference to the confusion and later the potential inherent in central character Johnny Blade, played by Charlie Archer. Flat on the mat – that is to say, the very centre of the Glassworks, with a "recording studio" on one side and the "producer's office" on the other - Johnny is a wreck. His trousers are literally down and he has only Jessica Symonds' femme fatale Emelia Vamp (geddit?) and camp German studio man Hans (John "not the football legend" Giles) for company. In Hans' words, Johnny and Emelia are like Tristan & Isolde, with one promising another "the world" in a vision that he set out to complete, but never did.

The concept of the play is as uncertain as Johnny is at this stage. The Monotones' genuinely good music, a blend of The Rolling Stones and Johnny Cash, drowns out dialogue that verges on trite. The overt symbolism in the character names feels a little stereotypical, leaving the show to get by on humour that is sometimes Pythonesque, but at other times very Carry On.

Enter the seemingly insignificant Ricky (Cary Crankson), looking like a cross between Rick Astley and Roger Daltrey. Johnny has entrusted him with finding the lyrics for his latest song, so it does seem that he is going to play the part of the apparently insignificant patsy in Johnny's success. Elsewhere, Johnny and Emelia argue over the part this former "child star", the literal Vamp could play in the next recording. Drummer Gonzo (Jack Bence) taps a rhythm to their discussion while Hans observes with a series of intricate mannerisms. You admire everything that's going on, but you don't quite know where to focus. All the same, the effects of the play are being felt by both cast and audience on a very cinematically intimate set.

Johnny's meeting with producer Bunny Savage (yes, it's symbolic), played by Gerard McDermott, is striking in itself, a skin-crawling yet revealing discussion of the apathy, cruelty and single-mindedness in the music business. Think Lord Sugar crossed with Del Boy plus an uneasy level of savagery (of course) and innuendo. Sensing how intense the audience may feel, Murphy and McLaughlin correctly throw in an unexpected but catchy musical interlude featuring Bunny on harmonica, with acoustics and a washboard to back him up.

It's an all too brief respite before Emelia successfully seduces a tune out of Stitch (Howard Teale), a gifted writer with the appearance and backbone of Fredo Corleone. She has, as you might expect, stitched him up, but Johnny doesn't know this. Cue fireworks of the not necessarily pleasant kind when Johnny actually sees them together.

With the majority of the plot complications taken care of, writer, director and cast are more focused in Act Two. They successfully wrap every story element around the most Farquharian element of the show – finishing and performing a work of art in complicated circumstances.

Along the way, there is a painful encounter between Bunny and Ricky, Emelia learning the difference between reciting a song and inhabiting it, Johnny unexpectedly rediscovering both his bearings and his true talent through a musical bond with Emelia, and shocking revelations that spell a bittersweet – strike that, bitter – and darkly punishing fate for nearly every character involved.

It all packs a passionate and rather tragically poetic punch, with Johnny indeed becoming a "Revelator" – just not in the way he surely intended.